The kitchen's floor was hot and slippery with the soup that had been boiling thickly on the burner before the ship suddenly dove to port. Tom had cursed as the liquid scalded his hands and seeped through to his knees. He'd tumbled against one of the cabinets, then crawled toward what he thought was the dining area. Not that he was sure where he was. It was still early alpha shift and they'd been alone in the mess when . . . when what? Everything was eerily quiet now and it shouldn't be. Neelix should be buzzing about him, talking a kilometer a minute. Alarm klaxons should be wailing.
"Neelix," he repeated, sweeping a hand above the still steaming soup. "Neelix?"
He palmed his comm badge and was met with the same silence.
A second blow shook the ship, this time he had the composure to identify it - clearly a weapon's blast. The artificial gravity shuddered, lifting him slightly from the floor before it stabilized. Who was piloting? Batehart? Baines? God damn useless piece of shit I am, he cursed inwardly, struggling forward in search of the Talaxian, can't even find an unconscious man two meters in front of me.
Something was making a soft sibilant hissing to his right and, still on his knees, Tom stumbled toward it. His reaching hands identified that the cook was lying face down, a noticeable catch apparent in each breath.
"Hey, Neelix . . ."
The body stirred beneath his grasp.
"Did we hit something," the scratchy voice asked groggily.
"Yeah, an iceberg. Welcome aboard the Starship Titanic," replied Tom, trying to keep Neelix from rising. He turned his eyes uselessly toward the mess' ceiling. "Are the emergency lights on? I haven't heard a red alert and my commbadge isn't working."
"Ah," Neelix struggled up with a groan. "They're on."
"You OK? It sounds like you might have broken a rib or two."
"Maybe," wheezed the cook, thinking the one thing he didn't think he could do right now was get to his feet. "It hurts pretty bad."
Tom rose to a crouch.
"Is the supply cabinet still standing? I'll get the medkit."
"How bad is it?"
There was no answer from the far side of the cabin.
"How bad, B'Elanna?"
"We suffered some damage in the latest attack."
"I'm blind, B'Elanna. Not stupid."
"We've had to shut down decks nine and ten. The holodeck. The cargo bays." There was a soft sigh as B'Elanna collapsed on the cabin's small couch. "Name it and it probably needs repair."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"You've had enough to deal with . . ."
"I'm part of this crew!"
"Okay, you're right."
She leaned into him tiredly and he put his cheek against her hair. Even the soft strands smelled of burnt circuits and lubricant.
"We're near an area of space that the Pictans claim as their territory. Even Neelix has heard about them. Definitely non-diplomatic and armed to the teeth with photon cannons. They don't even want us going around their boundaries. As best we can figure we've been branded 'shoot on sight' and, Kahless, they have lots of sightings."
Tom clasped his arms around her shoulders, burrowing against her taut neck. Nothing he could do about hostile aliens. Nothing he could do about hull breaches and plasma fires, but maybe there was something he could do about the tense and weary body in his grasp.
Moving down her neck his lips left a line of caresses. A gentleness she accepted, bending back into the tenderness. As the light touches reached her shoulders and his teeth scraped against her skin the sensation released a low groan of protest from her throat.
"Ssh . . ." said Tom, the departure of his breath leaving a coolness on her back. "Let me do this."
He nipped at her shoulder then sunk deeper, drawing blood, sweet and metallic. The body he held shook in anticipation of the release that was to come.
"Well, if nothing else good comes out of this, at least it reminded me of that story."
Neelix clapped Sam Wildman on the back and headed back to straighten his kitchen.
Chakotay slipped down next to the Ensign with a strong cup of tea, wondering how even their normally optimistic chef could find some kind of progress in their daily battles of late. The ship was scarred, the crew bordering on exhaustion and still the Pictan attacks continued.
"Commander," acknowledged Sam wearily before turning her attention to the magenta soup the Talaxian had ladled in her bowl.
He took a sip of the hot, herbal brew. "What story was Neelix talking about?"
"Oh, something he wants to tell Naomi about the Guardians of Space and Time. They're supposed to live around this sector."
"I'd be surprised the Pictans let them."
"Well, according to Neelix, they wouldn't have much choice. These Guardians are pretty powerful creatures."
Chakotay stared blearily into his cup, the hours catching up with him.
"You know," he mused, "my people believe most myths have some basis in truth. Maybe these 'Guardians' would be willing to help get us out of here."
Sam smiled at the congenial first officer. Somehow it was hard to be morose with him and Neelix around.
"Maybe you should relay it to the Captain," she suggested jokingly, but the first officer looked thoughtful.
"That's not a bad idea."
"The Guardian is a legend, Captain. My great-aunt Vuneaux used to read us Brzsi's Great Galactic Tales around the leola pot."
The spotted cook shrugged. "If I remember it all . . . it was the V'clyn that first found the sector. They called it the Fgeina Zes from one of their own legends - the ‘Timeless Sea.' Said that passing through it made all the ship's chronometers run backwards. Which would have been bad for them - terrible chefs, the V'clyn - can't imagine having to have one of their dinners twice."
"Neelix," warned the Captain.
The smaller alien coughed uncomfortably. "Right. The ‘Timeless Sea.' Well, of course, no one believed them, the V'clyn were something of a exaggerating bunch, living out on the edge of the sector, flying where no one else had gone . . . But when Talaxia opened up trading relations with V'clyn I, the shortest of the very long trade routes went straight through that particular sector, so the Talaxian cargo ships thought they would too. Until some strange radiation started frying the ship's instruments. Made the long way around look like the better choice. Dinetx wasn't a captain known for making better choices, though. It was said he'd run Krette Glands to Ompli VII and any Talaxian who'd do that would do practically anything . . ."
Neelix waited expectantly for the laugh that always arose at this point in the story, but realized in a second one wasn't going to come from the uniformed crew.
"In any case, Dinetx tried to take his ship straight through the sector, radiation be damned. When he came back they say he wasn't quite the same. Kept muttering something about the ‘hole in time.' Well, nobody could figure out what he was talking about. Can't disturb the ‘hole in time, ' he'd say and his crew would nod. Well, all except for the cook - Viffed - he was in the galley the whole time and apparently missed the entire thing. Anyway, the Talaxian Science Academy decided to send out a ship of their own, specially protected, with an automated backup system, just in case the radiation got to the crew before this 'hole' thing did. The ship disappeared for years, the Talaxian government closed off the trade route, then the V'clyn went to war with the Fefflepu and managed to get their sun blown to bits. Basically everyone forgot about it. Until the day the ship turned up in Talaxia orbit on autopilot. Not one crewmember to be found. Only the central computer functional and it kept endless repeating 'where the tides of Forever meet.' You see, it's a line from the tale of Fgeina Zes."
"And," prodded Chakotay.
"And that's the entire story. There used to be warning buoys around Fgeina sector but that was millennia ago. Everyone knows not to go through there."
With a slight nervousness, Neelix noticed the thoughtful glances being passed between the senior staff.
"N. . . no one goes through there," he repeated with a sudden stammer.
"Beats staying here and getting blown to bits by the Pictan space fleet," observed the Captain.
"You can't be serious!"
"Neelix, it's a legend. A two-thousand-year-old legend. It's probably like tomatoes."
"Tomatoes?" The cook felt on the verge of hysteria. The captain was planning to take their ship into the Timeless Sea and Harry Kim wanted to talk about the fruit that made up Tom Paris' favorite soup?
"In Earth's middle ages they were thought to be poisonous. For hundreds of years no one would touch them. Now we know them to be perfectly safe. Actually healthy."
"Captain, I object - this is . . . it's suicidal."
"No," disagreed B'Elanna, "staying here is suicidal. I don't know if we can fight off another attack."
"And, if this legend is as well known as you say, maybe if we start toward it they'll back off," offered Chakotay. "We may not even have to enter the sector."
"We've got two of them on our tail, Captain."
Jan Baines executed a second programmed evasive pattern and thought grimly that Paris would have had the ship on manual by now, swinging the Voyager's big mass by fingertip touch. Kathryn funneled the picture from the starship's aft sensors to the main viewscreen and watched as the sleek iridescent destroyers matched the motion and steadied for the kill.
The alarm sent an adrenaline surge through his heart as much as it did the officers who pushed back their chairs, abandoning their meals, but he had nowhere to go. No service he could offer except to press closer to the mess counter and make the path to the doors clear.
"Guess that leaves plenty for me." He directed the comment ruefully toward the space where he assumed Neelix stood.
"What?" The Talaxian looked up startled to find the room still occupied. He deftly finished wrapping the phaser holster around his rounded waist. "Yes. A lovely glaxen leaf stew, but I'm afraid you'll have to get it for yourself. Duty calls."
*For everyone but the blind.* Tom wasn't sure what emotion must have been showing on his face, but the Talaxian's sharp steps stopped receding.
"Can you get that yourself? I can . . ."
"Neelix it's a red alert. If you have a duty station you should be at it. Now."
It was a good imitation of the Admiral's military bark.
"Yes . . . yes," stammered the cook. "You're right of course. I'm just going now."
The mess hall doors snapped open and shut a final time. In the remaining silence Tom stepped behind the counter and found the simmering pot of leafy stew.
"Ugh . . ." he grunted as he leaned over the steaming cauldron and breathed in the vapors.
What little appetite might have remained failed him. He somehow imagined the broth to be a livid magenta, the leaves a sickly yellow-green. He was thinking of burning some replicator rations when his commbadge chirped.
"Paris," he answered, nursing a nagging fear that the voice on the other end of the comm link would turn out to be B'Elanna, making sure he'd taken refugee somewhere safely away from the outer hull. Like he was Naomi Wildman. But it was the Doctor's clipped tone that reverberated through the empty hall.
"Lieutenant, I need you to report to Sickbay."
Despite repeated attempts to more fully develop the EMH's emotional breadth, it was still irritation that the program most easily expressed.
The question was met by some irritation of Tom's own.
"I would think, Doc, that there is more to concern you right now than my safety."
"Your 'safety' was not my particular concern at the moment, Lieutenant. There is a red alert. I have no available nurse. I require assistance. I require your presence in Sickbay. Now."
Apparently the Doctor had also been programmed with the Fleet 'bark.'
"But the Captain relieved me of duty."
"She may have, but I did not. I simply haven't required your assistance until now."
The deck rocked violently and Tom had to steady himself by grasping the smooth edged counter. He moved away from the boiling stew.
"Please make haste, Lieutenant. I'm afraid our services will be needed shortly."
"What took you so long?"
"Somebody put a couple of new walls between here and Deck Two."
He had the feeling that the holographic doctor was staring at him, his subroutines caught between the desire to take the statement literally, run a scanner over him or scoff at yet another exaggeration.
Truth was, there had seemed to be new walls. Every time the ship jolted he'd found a convenient one to crash into.
The sickbay doors snapped open and Tom did the only thing he could think of -- he moved out of the way. Then the doctor pushed him toward the incoming wounded.
"Help Ensign Carroll to the diagnostic bed."
Already the doctor had his own arm around another reeling crewman. Instead of helping, Tom's stumbling almost succeeded in knocking Carroll down, but he managed to get an arm under the other man's shoulder.
"I'll be the legs," he told the groaning ensign. "You be the eyes."
"Tell me what it says."
It was an instruction he'd repeated too often today.
She'd been talking just a minute ago Somewhat breathlessly and clearly in pain, but talking.
Carefully he felt for a neck pulse and drew back a hand wet with what he knew with a sickening of his stomach, must be blood.
In agreement with his alarmed cry, the sensors on the biobed began ringing, joining each other in a disheartening cascade. In his rush, the Doctor unceremoniously pushed him out of the way and he stumbled backwards. Carroll caught him and Tom struggled to regain his footing before the ensign reinjured his newly knitted tibia.
"Lieutenant," Carroll was gently restraining him.
"No, I need to help."
The chiming symphony of alarms slowed then faded to a single tone. Then it, too, went silent.
Carroll finally released him and Tom took a step in the direction of the biobed where Megan Delaney lay. There was the unmistakable snap of a medical tricorder shutting.
"Is she OK?"
"Computer," the hologram's voice sounded authentically weary, "please note in the log. Lieutenant Megan Delaney died at 1826, this date, from exposure to R-nine radiation."
Oh God. He knew the symptoms: difficulty breathing, aching in the muscles, hemorrhaging that left a distinctive lacey red pattern in the eyes and skin. A pattern he couldn't see. Sensor readings he couldn't see. While he had been asking her to read her own vitals she'd been dying. Dying.
Tom's legs felt like they would give beneath him. What insane reason was he here? Even with sight his medical training was minimal. Without it he was not merely incompetent, but dangerous.
The hologram steadied him.
"Lieutenant Delaney's death is regrettable, but not unexpected. That type of poisoning rarely responds to treatment. Even if you had diagnosed . . ."
"Diagnosed? Hell, she was hemorrhaging right before my eyes and I couldn't even see it."
In some part of his mind he realized he was grateful for that. He hadn't loved Megan Delaney, but he had held her. He had made love to her. He could still see her creamy skin flushing to a nova-pink glow.
More hands than the Doctor's touched him and he jerked away from their comfort. He had been a good pilot, but even good pilots make mistakes. He'd grown used to bearing the knowledge that his mistake at Caldik Prime had cost three lives. He wanted no more to do with a universe that forced him to bear more. He'd known, somewhere in the dark, unvoiced part of his soul, that he accepted the darkness as just punishment. That it was somehow a relief that he would no longer be put in a position where his mistake would cost another life.
He lurched for the door, knowing he was running away, just as he had at Caldik Prime. Running into the unlit corridor as he'd run into the arms of the Maquis. Maybe now, like then, he'd find his own punishment. Stumble blindly down a Jefferies Tube or into an airlock.
The Doctor held back Carroll. Chasing down the ex-pilot would risk reinjuring the ensign's new growth of bone and he could not leave the infirmary himself. Accessing a subroutine that had been cataloging the tremors that swelled through the deck with each weapon's hit, he noted that 12.23 minutes had passed since the last jolt transmitted through the hull. Connecting with the main computer, he checked the sensor log and found no indication of enemy vessels. Then, overriding his captain's direct order, he silently opened a comm channel in listening mode. A second unrelated program analyzed the stress levels of the bridge crew's voices as they were transmitted. Deducing from the data he'd gathered that the immediate crisis had passed, the Doctor moved his hand to his commbadge and requested assistance.
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